How widows in Nigeria are belittled, face various challenges

Widows in Nigeria are saddled with a lot of burdens and disadvantages. According to a publication on TheConversation, Nigeria is home to about 15 million of the world’s 258 million widows.

The patriarchal society that Nigeria substantially operates connotes that the descent or origin of individuals is traced through males, who dominate and control the systems. Women are often limited in their duties. Widows receive worse treatment as they have no husbands that will stand for them. These women are vulnerable to all manner of exploitations and attacks.

The plight of a widow in Nigeria is a pathetic one. Some, especially in the rural areas, have been forced to adopt desperate measures to survive. As part of raising awareness, this piece will discuss widows in Nigeria and their challenges.

Who are widows?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a widow as a woman who has lost her spouse or partner by death and usually has not remarried. Apart from experiencing grief, loss, or trauma after the death of a spouse, widows also go through economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatisation, and harmful traditional practices based on their unfortunate marital status.

Challenges of widows in Nigeria

In Nigeria, a woman’s value is based on her marital status. If she is married, she is widely respected, especially if the husband is rich. However, when the husband dies, widowhood becomes a nightmare, not because she is grieving the loss, but because society, at times, automatically depreciates her previously held respectable social standing.

Here are some of the challenges that widows face in Nigeria.

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a widow living in poverty

According to UN Women a United Nations publication, one in 10 widows lives in extreme poverty globally. Continuing, the body noted:

Women are also much less likely to have access to pensions than men, so the death of their husbands can lead to destitution for older women. On the other hand, child widows (aged under 18 at the time of marriage) often experience multiple rights violations and have to cope with (sometimes for life) the impact of premature marriage and widowhood. At least 1.36 million out of the approximately 258 million widows worldwide, are child widows.

In Nigeria, many Nigerian women are not economically empowered, often allowing their husbands to shoulder the financial responsibilities of the family. When the husband dies, the woman is automatically plunged into poverty, especially if the death is sudden. Many women whose late husbands were their financial dependants lack the knowledge or skills to become financially independent.

Denied right of inheritance

Denied right of inheritance

Recently, there was a report about a Nigerian widow in Imo State thrown out of her matrimonial home by her stepson. Her case is just one out of several cases. In patriarchal societies such as Nigeria, women are often denied the right to inheritance.

This is an issue in the country, particularly in the South-East region. The Igbos largely believe that a woman’s only inheritance is tied to her husband. However, when the husband dies, the inheritance goes to her son and in cases where there is no son, the husband’s closest next of kin inherits. Oftentimes, the next of kin denies even the widow’s son, who is often too young to fight for his inheritance. The woman is left with virtually nothing to care for herself and her children. She is forced to start her life again from scratch, despite that she may have been instrumental to her late husband’s assets.

ALSO READ: Understanding polygamy in modern Nigeria

Forced marriage

Forced marriageUN Women revealed that at least 1.36 million out of the approximately 258 million widows worldwide are child widows. Many of these young widows do not know their rights or are not matured enough to take decisions and are often passed off as brides to other men. In some Igbo cultures, a widow, especially a childless one, is required to marry her late husband’s closest male next of kin and bear children in the deceased’s name. Oftentimes, the widow has no choice but to comply or face serious consequences. The rebellious ones are likely to be ostracised by the late husband’s family and sometimes, society. They will face ridicule and all sorts of discrimination for “being stubborn”.

Harmful traditional practices

Harmful traditional practices

Widows in Nigeria are often subjected to dangerous traditional practices that are entrenched in the culture. In eastern Nigeria, for instance, a widow’s hair is shaved. Sometimes, she is forced to drink the water used in bathing her late husband’s corpse as proof of her innocence. In many cases, she has to carry a calabash and walk through the village to the shrine to swear that she has no hand in her husband’s death.

Then, the widow is forced to sleep in the same room with her husband’s corpse. Her diet is restricted and she is expected to wear shapeless clothes throughout her mourning period, which takes a long time. By the time the widow is set free from these harmful traditions, her health, both physical and mental, is severely affected. Some widows die in the process.

Religious discrimination

Religious discrimination

Dominique Van De Walle in an article on the World Bank website opines:

“Islamic inheritance law stipulates a better treatment of widows, than does customary family law which often applies to Christians… Among Christians, widowhood is associated with worse nutritional status, while the opposite (is the case with) Muslims.

She adds: “Christian widows report a higher incidence of cruelty and violence at the hands of in-laws and consistently inferior inheritance outcomes, including significantly higher rates of dispossession than do Muslim widows. The greater acceptability and ease of remarriage through the practice of polygamy also favours widowed Muslims.”

In conclusion, De Walle writes: “Muslim widows fare better (than their Christian counterparts), despite (the former’s) worse overall endowments.”

In other words, religion plays a crucial role in how widows are viewed and treated.


The harsh practice against widows in Nigeria is a violation of a woman’s human rights. Unfortunately, not everybody sees it that way as the brutish practice is termed normal tradition. Although there is a statutory law recognising a Nigerian widow’s right to inherit her husband’s properties, as well as other laws, we all know that implementation is slow in the country. Widows in Nigeria are often not consulted when matters concerning them and their children are discussed by their in-laws. They are expected to stay mute and obey all directives from their in-laws.

The saddest part is most enforcers of the terrible deeds are women, some of them widows. In the South-East region, the umuada – daughters of the paternal family – are always the enforcers of the traditional widowhood practices. They are the ones who shave the hair and ensure the widow follows all traditions whether she likes it or not.

But with the help of feminist agitations, more women becoming more influential in politics and with some state governors enacting legislation to ensure women are respected, more laws are expected to be enacted to protect widows in Nigeria.

ALSO READ: Feminism in Nigeria: Meaning, history, impact, obstacles and writers

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